Breathe in, breathe out. Wait. Breathe through your mouth. Look at the fish! Do NOT touch the coral reef.
My mind whirred trying to remember the instructions; my body struggled to follow. Panic set in. I couldn’t breathe. Waves crashed over me as I tried to adjust my mask, filling my orifices with salty water. Something didn’t feel right, and there was no trained guide with me. I began stepping and stumbling on coral. Colourful fish darted past, making room for the newcomer flailing about in their waters.
A few months ago, I visited Maldives, an archipelago famous for its luxury resorts, stunning coral reefs and promise of paradise. From my window seat in the seaplane I spotted hues of blue I’d only seen in a colour wheel. I would later learn that the deeper the blue, the deeper the sea. Lighter patches denote coral reefs in shallow waters, and I could spot them in large numbers. Waves rolled about hither and thither, interrupted by reefs, sandbars and the occasional island. I quickly jotted down: the ocean has stretch marks. I couldn’t wait to see the two fancy resorts I’d been booked in over six days, and jump right in.
Swimming in the ocean is an entirely different experience from frolicking around in a pool, especially when your fin-shod feet no longer touch the ground and the tide turns stronger. In my case, add to this a snorkelling mask worn wrong, no life jacket, and no certified guide; what you get is what I termed my own Series of Unfortunate Events. Only this time, more than my safety was at stake: every time I stumbled over the shallow (and abundant) reef, I killed a portion of it. Walking or standing on coral damages the polyps which build it, affecting an entire ecosystem.
I wish I could say that this happened only once, but my first two swims were trial and error. I did learn to be more careful each time, and when I checked into the second resort, I insisted on trained guides accompanying me into the waters. But my guilt had adulterated the joy of the ocean’s magical discovery. Both resorts prided themselves on the luxury they offered guests. Both had rich house reefs teeming with a multitude of fishes, reef sharks, and even turtles. But the ground reality? Scores of people, young and old, fumbling in water, thinking they could snorkel/swim, inadvertently destroying fragile ecosystems. Guided snorkelling trips cost extra, and had fixed timings, which meant that a lot of guests could simply forgo them.
Being able to experience how 71 per cent of the planet lives is an eye-opening journey, one that made me want to learn how to scuba dive. But it also made me question how we travel: what does being a responsible traveller mean? Can I breathe easy if the damage done by me was inadvertent? Or should I also have stopped others from making the same mistakes? With whom does the responsibility lie? I appreciated how the hotels’ staff (half of them locals) went out of the way to keep the waters and beaches clean, but weren’t the reefs part of the maintenance too? My doubts run amok, but one thing I know for sure—the next time I snorkel, I will be far more careful of where I do it, and with whom.
I faced a similar dilemma a couple of years ago, on a trip to Kasol, a Himalayan hamlet in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. It was choking with six-hour traffic jams at New Year’s Eve. From afar, the slice of mountains dotted with pine trees seemed almost perfect. The town overlooks the crystal-blue Parvati River, which sparkled in the winter sun. But reality hits as you inch closer—overtourism, litter, and pollution of all sorts: plastic, bonfires, and Punjabi music. The few treks I went on in Kasol told the same tale. Local effort was overrun by the sheer magnitude of careless tourists. At that point, simply not littering was just not good enough.
All is not lost though. Illustrator Indu Harikumar says she is aware that the mere act of getting on an airplane contributes to pollution. But she tries to make up in the little things. On her last trek in the Western Ghats, she collected the litter along the way. “Just being more careful about the environment helps. I carry dabbas to keep leftovers, always keep a bottle of water, and use eco-friendly sanitary napkins.”
In 2012, Indiahikes, an Indian company that organises Himalayan treks, started their Green Trails initiative. Helmed by Lakshmi Selvakumaran, the initiative has collected over 30,000 kilos of inorganic waste from the mountains since 2016. “We don’t do clean-up treks—all our treks are green,” she explains. Green Trails involves composting biodegradable waste, rainwater harvesting, building deep pit sawdust toilets for treks, and helping villagers and dhabawallas with waste management. And, no bonfires. All trekkers are aware of the rules; many come especially to volunteer. Selvakumaran puts it best: “Travel not only without leaving a trace, but also undo previous damage.”
Lubna Amir is Assistant Digital Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.